Welcome to our ultimate Colombo 5 day itinerary. It’s a step-by-step guide to the big and bustling commercial epicenter of Sri Lanka, offering a glimpse at the incredible Buddhist temples and the enthralling colonial-era districts of the largest metropolis on the Teardrop of India.
But it also does much more than just tick off the sights in the town itself. We think that five days is more than enough to get your fix of culture in the capital and then whiz out to see some more treasures. That’s why we’ve got excursions to the mist-topped hill town of Kandy and the glowing beaches to the south.
The truth is that most travelers skip the town altogether, either eager to hit the tea country around Ella or the tropical sands past Galle. Our Colombo 5 day itinerary aims to strike a good balance between all the heritage in the city and the natural beauty of the surrounding isle. Let’s go…
Table of Contents
Day 1 – The mainstay sights of Colombo
We get right to it on our ultimate Colombo 5 day itinerary. Mhmm…your initial sightseeing session is all about ticking off the must-dos of the Sri Lankan capital. You should try to beat the jet lag and rise early, because there’s quite a bit to get through here…
Stop one: The National Museum. A vast and grand exhibition space that was raised by the British in the late 1800s. It’s now host to the richest collection of art and artifacts related to the history of the island. If you can peel yourself away from the shimmering colonial exterior, then there’s everything from mystical Buddha statues that date back centuries to historic Sinhalese costumes and weapons to strange elephant skeletons in the displays inside.
Stop two: Fort. Fort is the main district of downtown Sri Lanka. It’s packed with the most iconic sights in the city. We think the best way to see them is to plot a walking course through the area. Make sure you include:
- The Sambodhi Chaithya – A massive white concrete stupa that was built in the 1950s, located on the far north side of Fort.
- Gordon Gardens – Leafy parklands with honorific statues.
- Lighthouse Clock Tower – One of the iconic landmarks of Colombo, this one towers over Upper Chatham Street. Believe it or not, it started life as a lighthouse.
- The Dutch Hospital – Now a shopping precinct, this very-old building was once used by the Dutch as a hospital, way back in the 1600s!
- King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s Prison Room – This strange little building colored bright yellow on the side of a busy road was where the last king of Sri Lanka was held before his surrender to the British in 1815.
Stop three: Galle Face Green. At night, there’s nowhere better than the Galle Face Green. A sprawling park filled with ad hoc cricket pitches, it spills onto a salt-washed promenade where you can do some fantastic people watching and enjoy real (spicy, mind you) Sri Lankan street food as the sunset blazes across the Indian Ocean.
Day 2 – The more off-the-beaten-track side of the city
So, Fort – the main tourist part of Colombo – is done and dusted. Now it’s time to explore the less-trodden parts of the Sri Lankan capital. Cue Pettah. This neighborhood is actually only a few steps away from where you were yesterday. It buts up to Fort’s north-eastern side and spreads around the colossal Colombo docks from there.
You should pass the Wimaladharma Clock Tower on the way. It’s a pretty pink-and-white keep with a cupola for a top, a gift to the city from the Parsi Bhikhajee Khan family of India. Today, it’s best known for marking the entrance to Pettah Market, where you can shop for tailored clothes, exotic vegetables, spices, Ceylon teas – the list goes on.
The market spans about two blocks in all. At the end of it, you should be right in the midst of the Old Town Hall Market. It’s another enthralling bazaar that’s actually better for foodies, because it’s a hubbub of husked coconuts, fragrant herbs, and multicolored fruits that are sourced from all over the island.
Done shopping? Good. Hitch a ride in a tuk-tuk across town to the Seema Malakaya Temple. It straddles the waters of Beira Lake, which is one of the great commercial meeting points of the city – notice the names of big banks and businesses emblazoned on high? The temple itself is a breath of fresh air within the metropolis. It’s got soothing spots for a bit of mediation and exquisitely carved relics of the Buddha footprint.
Later on, retire back to Galle Face Green to join in with the sunset festivities once more. It really is the nerve center of the city come the golden hour.
Day 3 – Colombo to Kandy for the day
Day 3 of our ultimate Colombo 5 day itinerary whisks you out of the big city itself. The aim? Kandy. It’s the cultural and religious heart of the country, hidden in the foothills of the tea-clad Central Highlands about 57 miles inland from the capital. There are two ways to get there: A private tour or taxi transfer and the train. The latter takes 2.5 hours each way, so you’ll need to rise early, but it does offer a montage of rice paddies and buffalo-dotted countryside as you go.
When you arrive in Kandy, prepare for an overload of history and heritage. The town itself is tucked into a deep valley by the side of a shimmering lake, all surrounded by mist-gathering hills. Its piece de resistance is the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It sits on the water’s edge with its gabled roofs and whitewashed walls, hosting a revered religious artifact that’s thought to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, no less!
You can tour that complex with an audio guide to get a feel for the grandeur and importance of it all. It actually adjoins the old Sri Lankan royal palace, too, which is also open for tours. And the grounds of the temple are lovely, especially as you get to meet some of the local wildlife – watch out for the cheeky macaques!
There’s more in the way of religious architecture on offer in Kandy when you’re done. You can hardly miss a trek to the top of the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue, for example. It perches on a high hill on the western side of the center, offering sweeping views of the whole tuk-tuk-crammed downtown and the mountains beyond. It’s also a striking spot, home to a 26-meter-high statue of the meditating Buddha that’s one of the largest in the country.
You’ll return to Colombo the same day. That’s easy if you’re booked onto an organized tour as you should have a pick-up spot nominated. Those going by train should be sure to be at the station for at least 4pm, as that’s around about when the last train leaves for the capital until much later in the evening.
Day 4 – Escape the city to Bentota
No jaunt to Sri Lanka’s south-western shoreline could possibly be complete without a few days on the legendary beaches. They actually run the whole of the way from Colombo down to the south coast, starting with the suburban sands of Panadura on the edge of the big metropolis and ending with the remote surf bays around Tangalle more than two hours’ drive away. We’re going to be finishing off our trip with a taste of some of the finest…
There’s loads to pick from. However, we think that the resort town of Bentota is a good middle ground. It takes you far enough from the buzz of the capital to get that hard-earned hit of R&R but is still really accessible to make the traveling easy on our Colombo 5 day itinerary. Yep, getting to Bentota is a cinch since the main north-south railway line on the west coast runs right through the town. There are loads of departures every day from the main station at Colombo Fort. They take about an hour in all.
Yep, that’s all it takes: One hour and you get to taste the fabled beaches of the Teardrop of India. You’ll alight at a stop called Aluthgama and then get an onward tuk-tuk to your hotel from there. Most of the stays in the town are just one or two streets back from the coast, so hitting the beach won’t take long. For accommodation choices, the name of the game here are midrange and luxury resorts with swimming pools and sea-view suites. We especially like Shangri-lanka Villa ($$) and the five-star Cinnamon Bentota Beach ($$$).
The main hub of the area is on Ventura Beach. That scythes along the edge of the coast to the point of a long spit of land that’s covered in coconut palms and yoga retreats. It’s got golden sand and wavy seas with a bit of beginner-friendly surf. Sounds like a great way to wind down after three days of city living, eh?
Day 5 – The southern beaches for R&R to finish
Don’t even think about turning and heading back to the capital. Our Colombo 5 day itinerary has other ideas. That’s mainly because some of the most irresistible parts of the whole island will now be right on the doorstep. From Bentota, it’s just a hop, a skip, and a jump down to the most famous resorts and beaches of the lot: Balapitiya, Narigama, Unawatuna.
You can pick any of those to finish off your adventure with salt, sand, sea, and surf. However, we’re going to recommend you go as far as Unawatuna. The reason? You get to see the incredible colonial-era town of Galle Fort and some eye-wateringly lovely beaches in one fell swoop. The other good news is that the trains from Colombo Fort go all this way south, so you can just hop on a locomotive at Bentota (the station is actually called Aluthgama) and keep going until you reach your destination.
Once in Unawatuna, there’s nothing for it but to score a hotel with views of the Indian Ocean. We really like the charming bolt hole of Thaproban Beach House ($$), where you can check the surf conditions from the window, and the more resort-style lodging of Angel Beach Unawatuna ($$$), which comes with its very own swimming pool behind the palm trees.
Like we said, you’ll want to drop into Galle Fort to delve into the historic town center. It’s replete with Dutch and Portuguese architectural feats and is now brimming with art cafés and art galleries. After that, be sure to check out the snorkel reefs of Dalawella Beach (turtles are regular visitors there) and the surf points of Ahangama a touch further south.